James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano shaped New Jersey state of mind nationwide

Image: Michael Imperioli and James Gandolfini  appear in "The Sopranos." BARRY WETCHER / AP
Michael Imperioli, left, and James Gandolfini appear in "The Sopranos."

Governors don't release statements every time some local guy who made good passes on. But mere hours after the sudden death of James Gandolfini Wednesday, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey had something to say about his state's native son.

"It's an awful shock," said Gov. Christie in a statement. "James Gandolfini was a fine actor, a Rutgers alum and a true Jersey guy. I was a huge fan of his and the character he played so authentically, Tony Soprano. I have gotten to know Jimmy and many of the other actors in the 'Sopranos' cast and I can say that each of them are an individual New Jersey treasure."

As Christie noted, Gandolfini was New Jersey to the core --born, educated and made famous there. A Westwood native, Gandolfini graduated from Rutgers University in 1983 (the school inducted him into its Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 2004 and said in a statement that the actor "was a proud and passionate supporter of the university for many years") and fittingly, when he finally broke through in Hollywood it wasn't on the West Coast -- it was thanks to his role as New Jersey resident Tony Soprano.

Christie wasn't the only politician to step in and embrace Gandolfini after his passing; New Jersey senator Robert Menendez said in a statement, "James Gandolfini was a distinctive, talented actor whose unforgettable performances made him a television icon.... His photograph has been displayed in my Washington, D.C. office for years as part of our New Jersey Wall of Fame."

Still, as a showcase for the state, "Sopranos" was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it focused on a niche culture of Italian-American gangsters while making extensive use of locations around the state. The series roamed easily between raw industrial warehouses, plush McMansioned suburbs and the lesser-known forested area known as the Pine Barrens, for which an entire episode was named.

  • Slideshow Photos

    Barry Wetcher / HBO

    Image: James Gandolfini

    James Gandolfini, 1961-2013

    The award-winning actor made even brutal mob boss Tony Soprano seem likable, but that was far from his only role.

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    He's the boss -

    James Gandolfini rose to fame as mob boss Tony Soprano on HBO's hit drama "The Sopranos," which ran from 1999 to 2007. He passed away on June 19.

    Michael Imperioli played his wife's cousin and Tony's own protege, Christopher Moltisanti. Gandolfini's character paved the way for other antiheroes to come, including "Breaking Bad's" Walter White, "Dexter's" Dexter Morgan and "Mad Men's" Jon Hamm, to name a few. All are highly flawed, but beloved by viewers.

    Barry Wetcher / AP
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    Family time -

    The actor attended the opening night of Cirque du Soleil's "Banana Shpeel" at the Beacon Theatre on May 19, 2010 in New York with his wife Deborah and son Michael. The teenager was the one who discovered Gandolfini collapsed in their hotel bathroom.

    Bobby Bank / WireImage
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    Supporting the troops -

    Gandolfini attended the New York premiere of HBO's documentary film "Which Way Is The Frontline From Here?" on April 10, 2013. The film follows the work of photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya. Gandolfini himself produced two documentaries examining the difficulties facing America's soldiers and Marines.

    Ilya S. Savenok / Getty Images
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    'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' -

    As the wealthy owner of Bally's Casino, Gandolfini was very much in charge of the wacky magicians (including Steve Carell) who want to perform in his establishment in 2013's "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone." Reportedly, the actor traveled to Las Vegas to research his role.

    New Line Cinema
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    A few words -

    Gandolfini spoke onstage at the 2012 New York Film Critics Circle Awards at Crimson on Jan. 7, 2013, in New York.

    Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images
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    'Not Fade Away' -

    Gandolfini teamed up with "Sopranos" creator David Chase again for the 2012 film "Not Fade Away," in which he played, Pat, an Italian immigrant who was father to a young Italian-American with dreams of becoming a rock star in 1960s New Jersey.

    AP
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    'Zero Dark Thirty' -

    Though Gandolfini's character was named as only "CIA director" in the 2012 Oscar-nominated film, presumably he was playing Leon Panetta, who was in charge of the agency when Osama Bin Laden was killed, which was the subject of the film.

    Everett Collection
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    'Killing Them Softly' -

    Gandolfini starred alongside Brad Pitt as hitman Mickey Fallon in the 2012 crime film "Killing Them Softly."

    Melinda Sue Gordon / AP
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    'Welcome to the Rileys' -

    Gandolfini played Doug Riley, a father grieving the death of his daughter in the 2010 film "Welcome to the Rileys." Kristen Stewart played a 16-year-old stripper named Mallory with whom Doug moves in while he tries to put himself back together.

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    'God of Carnage' -

    James Gandolfini starred with Marcia Gay Harden on Broadway in "God of Carnage" in 2009. The role earned the actor a Tony nomination.

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    'Where the Wild Things Are' -

    Gandolfini has always been bigger than life, and in the 2009 adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are" it was even more true -- despite the fact that he never appeared in person on screen. Gandolfini voiced the head Wild Thing, named Carol (pictured with actor Max Records, who played Max).

    Warner Bros. Pictures
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    'Surviving Christmas' -

    In 2004's "Surviving Christmas," Gandolfini played a suburban father who clobbers Ben Affleck him with a shovel, but ends up having him over for the holiday.

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    'The Man Who Wasn't There' -

    In 2001's neo-noir "The Man Who Wasn't There," Gandolfini (pictured with Katherine Borowitz) played "Big Dave" Brewster, a braggart who claims to have served in WWII's Pacific Theatre.

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    'The Mexican' -

    In the 2001 comedy "The Mexican," Gandolfini played a sensitive, gay hitman who made it his business to protect Julia Roberts' Samantha.

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  • James Gandolfini, 1961-2013

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    Golden night -

    Gandolfini won the Emmy for best lead actor in a drama series in 2000 for his role as Tony Soprano, an honor he would claim two more times. The actor also won a Golden Globe for best performance by an actor and three SAG awards for outstanding performance by a male actor, among many more honors.

    Scott Nelson / AFP/Getty Images
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    Mobster men -

    Tony Sirico (as Paulie), Michael Imperioli (as Christopher) and Steven Van Zandt (Silvio) starred as mob men who did the bidding of boss Tony Soprano (Gandolfini) in the HBO drama "The Sopranos."

    Barry Wetcher / HBO

Fans responded by seeing the often-maligned state in a different light; maps and extensive lists sprung up pointing out key locations where scenes (and executions) took place. And then came the TV tourists, who wanted to visit anything "Sopranos"-related, who signed up for tours. On Location Tours still caters to fans who want to visit the Bada Bing, Father Phil's Parish and the restaurant booth where the Sopranos sat in their final scene in the series.

Not every New Jersey resident -- or Italian-American -- loved Tony Soprano and his world; throughout the series run anti-defamation activists protested the portrayal of their ethnic group. Show creator David Chase rarely commented on that topic, noting to a group of TV critics in January 2000 that the activists tended to overlook, for example, that the show's psychiatrist played by Lorraine Bracco was also Italian-American. "They just talk about this gangster s--- and it's really tiresome," he said then.

In the end, "Sopranos" opened up New Jersey in more ways than could be counted, by filming on location and beefing up the TV industry there, by making it appealing and sexy and dangerous for fans of the show, and by turning it from a perceived series of exits on the drive between Philadelphia to New York -- into a place of myth and power.

No wonder power is now reaching back. As Newark Mayor Cory Booker tweeted, "My condolences to the family and all those who loved James Gandolfini - a true NJ Great and NJ Original. RIP."

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